This previously unknown watercolour reveals Lavery's interest, early in his career, in the reworking of a familiar theme. Childhood piety had been a popular source of subject matter for at least twenty years. John Everett Millais in My First Sermon and My Second Sermon, 1864 (both Guildhall Art Gallery, London) and Frederick Walker in Philip in Church, 1863 (Tate Britain, London) focused upon children enduring the rigour of lengthy church services. The Archbishop of Canterbury used such paintings as a means of warning his priests against the evil of 'drowsy discourses'. Nevertheless many of these images were, in our terms, sentimental - equating innocence with piety and beauty with scriptural truth. Their sugar coating assured their popularity and throughout the 1870s Millais and Walker had many imitators.
It would be in character with the young Lavery to put his own spin on this cottage industry. In Her Sunday Best, the child arrives in church on a wet day. Next to her stands a huge umbrella, brought by her father or mother. She sits on a bench at the back of the church against a blank featureless wall, perhaps waiting for her Sunday school class to commence. Her attitude, which contains none of the saccharine sweetness of Millais, is crucial, if not censorious. She is a real little girl, whose mind is already formed.
Throughout the 1880s Lavery painted many portraits of children who were mostly the offspring of the Paisley industrialists who were his patrons. Thus for instance, in 1886, substantial portraits of Eva and Alice Fulton, the daughters of James Fulton, a Paisley shawl manufacturer, were produced (both Renfrew Museums and Art Galleries). In the first of these cases, to add personality to the child, and in emulation of Van Dyck, Lavery added a pet dog. In the same way, a context is established for the girl in Her Sunday Best.
Lavery was to retain an interest in religious observance in his later career. One of his most important works, Her First Communion, 1901 (private collection) shows his own daughter, Eileen, dressed in white and holding a missal. However, while this, and The Madonna of the Lakes, 1916 (St. Patrick's Cathedral, Belfast), addresses aspects of Catholic piety, it is not too much to assume that this quizzical little Scots churchgoer comes from solid dissenter stock.
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for providing the catalogue entry for lots 164-170.